Will there be burgers or bunglers?

A Kim Jong-un/Donald Trump summit is cause for caution not optimism.

Just yesterday morning, I was reading a well-argued and somewhat depressing assessment by Krishnadev Calamur, a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, reflecting on the almost total absence of individuals who have the relevant expertise to lead on behalf of the US in the event of serious negotiations with North Korea. Notably:

  • The US diplomat who was in charge of relations with North Korea, Joseph Yun, has recently quit and no replacement has been named;
  • The State Department official charged with East Asian Affairs, career diplomat Susan Thornton, is serving in an acting capacity (although the Department is recommending her confirmation in the role); and
  • There is currently no US ambassador in Seoul, leaving another career diplomat, Marc Knapper, as chargé d’affaires;
  • A third career diplomat, Mark Lambert, is the State Department’s current Director for Korea Policy.

As a former career diplomat myself, I would be the last person to dismiss any of these individuals, including their occupying roles which, in the US system, would normally be filled by political appointees. And one should certainly add to the list of relevant career diplomats Allison Hooker who is currently on the National Security Council (NSC) where she specialises in Korean affairs and who accompanied Ivanka Trump to the Winter Olympics. But I still think that Mr Calamur was absolutely justified in asking whether Washington has the high level wherewithal and, in support, ‘the bench’ to go head-to-head with Pyongyang.

With Donald Trump unexpectedly accepting an invitation to meet Kim Jong-un possibly as early as May, coming up with a satisfactory answer to this question has become a matter of considerable urgency. Indeed, two genuine experts on North Korea, Gary Samore and Joel Wit, posted on the NPR website on 6 March to the effect that the early appointment of a replacement of Mr Yun looked to be a high priority even before this latest development. As they rightly opined, a high level meeting is a good starting point (and they had in mind one where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho would effectively agree to set up detailed negotiations)...

“...[b]ut to conduct a sustained and complicated negotiation will require a dedicated special envoy and team of technical and regional experts”.

This being said, I have to accept that there is validity in the claim made yesterday by an unnamed senior Administration official quoted in the Financial Times (FT, subscriber access only) that:

“Kim Jong-un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their uniquely authoritarian, or totalitarian, system”.

But whether, as the same official claims, Mr Trump is justified in his belief that his meeting Kim Jong-un will therefore avoid the “pitfalls” of the past by bypassing lower level talks which have failed to deliver seems to me to be highly questionable. Indeed, I am more inclined to go with the views (also quoted in the FT) of Evan Medeiros, a former Asia Director in the Obama NSC, that:

“This move is vanity over strategy. It validates and advances Kim [Jong-un’s] goal of being recognised as a de facto nuclear state”.

The reality, in my view, is that, as another senior Administration official conceded to the FT:

“[The North Koreans] are people who are used to deception”

…making perfectly reasonable the concern that Pyongyang will use the dip in tensions to continue to advance its weapons programme (short of testing) and the talks to try to extract concessions.

In other words, Mr Trump’s acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation does seem to me to be a case of him putting a tick in the box alongside another of his pre-election commitments — whether or not there are actually burgers involved, as he promised in May 2016, without much behind it.

It is certainly not the principle of talks which I am opposing here (far from it, in fact), so much as the US going to the table and bungling what could be the last best chance to head off the risk of military confrontation on the Korean peninsula — a risk highlighted by Adam Mount, a Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, in another recent article in The Atlantic. In such circumstances, Mr Trump’s personal involvement in a failure of the process could significantly increase the probability of him ordering a military strike of some sort.

Nevertheless, and pulling all of this together, I see no reason at this stage to move away from the bottom line I proffered in my 22 February article, ie that we remain on the established trajectory through to at least the end of this year, a 75% probability, and that:

“…the balance of probabilities is that Mr Trump will ultimately opt for containment and learn to live with a fully nuclear-capable North Korea. Nevertheless, adding to the mix the possibility of a miscalculation of some sort by one side or the other, I still find myself putting a 35% probability on war breaking out on the Korean peninsula at some point in the next 15 months or so.”

Alastair Newton

(Image credit: The Daily Star)

Comments (1)
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Excellent article!!